A Sound of Thunder: The Rise of the Soviet Superbooster

Interlude: Letters to the Editor
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    Interlude: Letters to the Editor​


    - Letters to the editor, Flight International, 30th December 1977


    I once again opened my copy of your illustrious magazine to find the article behind your cover story on the supposed new Soviet heavy lifter [Flight International, 16th December 1977, “Groza Matures Soviet Heavy Lift Capability”]. It was disappointing to see your publication once again falling for the Soviets’ laughable attempts to match what the Apollo program has already achieved, and the negative contrasts against the new Shuttle. This argument misses the sea change that the reusable Space Shuttle will offer in cost when it enters service, as we prepare to enter a new commercial flowering in spaceflight. Such consistent exaggeration of Soviet capabilities and undermining of Western and American ones such as the Space Shuttle and Shuttle-C system verges on communist propaganda. I hope to see better from your publication in the future.

    Reginald DeWitt, Pittsburgh, PA, USA


    - Letters to the editor, Flight International, 13th January 1978


    With regards to the recent letter from Mr. DeWitt [Flight International, 30th December 1977] regarding the “sea change” in launch costs that can be expected with the advent of the American Space Shuttle, I feel compelled to respond to counter the perpetuation of this myth. Any major reductions in cost could only be achieved through an unrealistically high flight rate, of the order of a hundred or more missions each year. With the planned fleet of four shuttle orbiters, this implies each orbiter flying on average one mission every two weeks. The refurbishment of an orbital space plane and its associated solid rocket boosters on this timeframe is simply not possible with the current state-of-the-art, whilst the manufacturing facilities at NASA’s subcontractors are nowhere near sufficient scale to produce the necessary external tanks.

    NASA have implicitly accepted this fact through their promotion of the non-reusable Shuttle-C. However, as mentioned in your recent article [Flight International, 16th December 1977, “Groza Matures Soviet Heavy Lift Capability”], the limitations imposed by having to adapt the flawed Shuttle Transportation System to an unmanned configuration has left the NASA with a heavy lift vehicle that is both late and under-powered compared to its Soviet equivalent.

    It is to be hoped that the United States does not come to regret its costly flirtation with re-usability.

    Albert Banks, Portsmouth, UK


    - Letters to the editor, Flight International, 27th January 1978


    Your correspondent Albert Banks [Flight International, 13th January 1978] appears to share an unfortunately widespread habit of underestimating the skills of American engineers. He apparently doesn’t grasp the basic principle that a vehicle like the Space Shuttle, which can be re-used, is inherently cheaper to operate than one that is thrown away after each launch. By presenting exaggerated and unfounded assumptions of the need for hundreds of flights per year to earn back development costs, he presents a strawman argument that ignores this basic fact. The Groza rocket, so beloved of armchair engineers, has surely cost the Russians at least as much to develop as the Shuttle, but unlike Shuttle they will have to build a complete new vehicle for every mission. By ending this costly practice with the Space Shuttle, the United States will lower prices and stimulate demand, creating a vibrant free market commercial space industry for the next decade.

    Reginald DeWitt, Pittsburgh, USA


    - Letters to the editor, Flight International, 3rd February 1978


    Once again, I see Mr. DeWitt promoting his over-simplified opinions in your magazine as if they were backed up by more than inflated rhetoric [Flight International, 27th January 1978]. Despite his disparaging of so-called “armchair engineers”, he himself displays no signs of familiarity with a rigorous engineering analysis, preferring instead to recycle tired old slogans about the power of free markets.

    Perhaps, however, the opinions of Mr. DeWitt and his ilk can be excused as a psychological protective measure to compensate for what is rapidly becoming obvious: that the United States is falling behind in space. While NASA launches model spaceplanes from a 747, with the aim of an eventual manned return to Earth orbit, the Soviets continue to push forward with an ambitious programme for lunar exploration. The recent Zond 13 mission can leave little doubt - even in minds as obtuse as that of Mr. DeWitt - that the USSR is close to accomplishing a manned mission to the lunar surface that will exceed Apollo in scale and ambition. They have achieved this, not by chasing fantasies of aeroplanes in space, but through the application of solid engineering approach coupled with a vigorous industrial policy that achieves value through mass production.

    Perhaps photographs of a cosmonaut placing the hammer-and-sickle on the Moon will be enough to wake NASA and others from their fever-dreams, but based on the evidence of certain correspondents to your magazine, I will not hold my breath.

    Albert Banks (B.Eng, FBIS), Portsmouth, UK


    - Letters to the editor, Flight International, 30th June 1978


    Thank-you for your excellent coverage of the Zond 14 lunar mission [Flight International, 23nd June 1978, “Zond 14 Points to Soviet Manned Lunar Ambitions”]. This development makes me wonder if it is not perhaps possible to re-activate the Saturn V production line in response to the Soviet challenge? NASA is already planning to make good use of Apollo hardware in their space station plans [Flight International, 17th February 1978, “NASA Proposes Skylab-B As Next U.S. Space Station”]. With the lessons being learnt with the Space Shuttle, perhaps it would even be possible to apply reusability to the Saturn first stage, bringing costs down further. Such a reusable first stage, lifting heavy payloads and even the existing planned Shuttle, would seem to be an excellent way to re-capture the innovative fires of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo which defeated the Soviets in what must now be regarded as the first space race and would set an electrifying groundwork for doing so in what must soon rapidly become the second.

    Tony Newbold, Solihull, UK


    - Letters to the editor, Flight International, 14th July 1978


    Although reasonable people may debate the extent to which the Space Shuttle will reduce launch costs, the notion recently proposed by Mr. Newbold [Flight International, 30th June 1978] of building new Saturn V’s, or even - to compound the absurdity - giving it a reusable first stage stretches credulity beyond breaking point. This is an idea that belongs in pulp science-fiction, not a serious aviation magazine.

    Reginald DeWitt, Pittsburgh, USA


    - Letters to the editor, Flight International, 21st July 1978


    I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing wholeheartedly with a letter from your esteemed correspondent Mr. DeWitt of Pittsburgh [Flight International, 14th July 1978]. Let us not waste ink in giving column inches to crackpot ideas like re-usable Saturn stages, when the West is facing the very real challenge of the USSR’s space ambitions.

    Albert Banks, Portsmouth, UK


    With thanks to @e of pi for his contributions to this post, and for all the "Space Twitter/Spitter" posters who inspired it!
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    Post 11: Red Sky in Morning
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    Post 11: Red Sky in Morning​

    “What moved the Politburo was the thought that the Muslim revolution in Afghanistan could succeed and that, as a result, the Soviet Unon would actually be thrown out of Afghanistan. The repercussions of such a blow to our prestige would be unpredictable. The Soviet Union could not run such a risk. The Politburo was determined to show that the Soviet Union would not be pushed about.”

    - Vladimir Kuzichkin, “Coups and Killings in Kabul: A KGB defector tells how Afghanistan became Brezhnev’s Vietnam”, published in Time Magazine, 22 November 1982.


    Following his takeover of NPO Energomash in September 1973, Valentin Glushko found that he had inherited a well-organised and extremely competent bureau from Vladimir Chelomei. Setting aside Chelomei’s justified reputation for delivering late, the programmes themselves were technically sound, and Glushko found little to complain about in the status of the Phase 1 Almaz space station project. In addition to Orbital Piloted Station number 1, which was already in orbit as the Almaz space station, OPS 2 and 3 were already at an advanced stage of preparation. OPS numbers 4 and 5, currently under construction at the Khrunichev factory in Fili, already incorporated a number of improvements planned for Phase 2, including a second docking port that would allow the stations to be re-supplied on orbit, and provided the opportunity to keep a crew aboard for the entire lifetime of the station. After a long and painful development, the advanced radar system for the stations was finally being installed in OPS 4, promising a big improvement in the station’s ability to track US naval movements from orbit.

    This plan was disrupted - in a positive way, from Glushko’s point of view - by the September 1974 decree reassigning work on the large MKBS stations from Mishin to NPO Energomash. In response to this decree, the MKBS hulls already produced by TsKBEM (except for the one destined to become Zarya) were transferred to Energomash. Two of these hulls were in an advanced stage of assembly, and would provide the basis of Energomash’s first flight model, plus a spare. Later core modules would be manufactured in-house by Energomash at Fili, along with specialised add-on modules based upon OPS or TKS modules. However, several critical components still needed several years of development, the most significant of which was the EyARD 1 nuclear reactor.

    In development since the mid-1960s as a power source for nuclear electric propulsion, the EYaRD was designed to provide more than 50kW of electrical power to the station over a period of at least five years. This was five times as powerful as the BES-5 reactor already flying on the US-A series of radar reconnaissance satellites, and would be needed to power the exotic laser and particle beam experiments that the Defence Ministry wanted to demonstrate. Glushko estimated at least five more years would be needed to bring the EyARD to the necessary level of maturity for flight and so, to avoid a lengthy delay in resuming crewed space station missions, Energomash’s first MKBS core would rely on solar power, just as TsKBEM’s first Zarya had. Most of the payloads originally planned for OPS-4 would be transferred to MKBS-2, with the OPS propulsion system also adapted for use on MKBS. As had been planned for the Phase 2 OPS stations, a second docking port was included, allowing for continuous crewing of the station.

    The successful return of the crew of Soyuz 20 from the Almaz 3 space station in July 1976 marked the completion of Phase 1 of the Almaz project. It also marked the final use of Soyuz as a ferry vehicle, which despite giving sterling service, had constrained the Almaz missions with the small volume of supplies that could be carried for each expedition. Mishin had offered to develop an automated supply ship derived from Soyuz, but Glushko rejected this in favour of moving forward with his own, more capable vehicle. The next phase of the Almaz project would see crews launching aboard Chelomei’s Transport and Supply Ship (TKS), which combined a small, conical Return Vehicle (VA) with a large Functional Cargo Block (FGB). Closely resembling the Apollo Command Module in shape, the VA was an evolution of Chelomei’s earlier proposed LK-1 lunar flyby ship, and was able to generate a small amount of lift to help steer it on re-entry. The FGB was in many ways a small space station in its own right, providing propulsion, power, crew support systems and cargo for missions of up to four months.

    The TKS design was already well advanced by the time Glushko replaced Chelomei. The new Chief Designer made minimal changes to the vehicle, focusing instead on redesigning MKBS and development of his new RLA family of launchers. Development of the TKS therefore continued more-or-less uninterrupted after the creation of NPO Energomesh.
    The first flight tests of TKS hardware came in May 1976, with the uncrewed launch of two VA capsules by a Proton-K rocket on mission LVI 1. The capsules entered orbit and separated, being identified as Kosmos 821 and 822 in the launch announcement. After a short stay in orbit, they were commanded to re-enter the atmosphere, and both capsules landed successfully in the Kirghiz SSR.

    A second uncrewed test, LVI 2, was launched in September 1976, but was not quite as successful, with an electrical fault causing a failure in the guidance system of one of the two vehicles (Kosmos 859), which caused it to fail to initiate de-orbit on the first attempt. A second attempt one orbit later succeeded, with the vehicle coming down in the Russian Far East. Recovery teams took three days to locate the wayward capsule, but once found it appeared to be in good condition.

    With two successful uncrewed missions completed, the next flight was more ambitious. This time the bottom VA of the stack would be VA #009, which had flown on the LVI 1 mission, marking the first demonstration of reusability for a crewed space vehicle. However, the most significant change for LVI 3 was the inclusion in VA #102 of cosmonaut Anatoli Berezovoi for the first crewed test of the TKS system.

    Although the VA module was designed to carry up to three cosmonauts (all wearing pressure suits, in contrast to the practice of using simple flight suits on Soyuz), the loss of Komarov on Soyuz 1 cast a long shadow, and it was decided that this first mission would carry a single cosmonaut. Positioned at the top of the stack, Berezovoi’s VA module was attached to the SAS launch abort tower, which had been extensively tested with the VA over the past few years, and was based upon the system successfully used on the early L1/Zond missions, so confidence for the launch phase was high.

    The inclusion of a cosmonaut meant that a Kosmos designation was not appropriate, and so a name needed to be found for the spacecraft to put in the TASS press release. Breaking from Chelomei’s practice of naming craft for precious stones, Glushko chose a more patriotic, politically pleasing name for the VA, and by extension, the whole TKS: Slava (Glory)[1].

    After an aborted countdown the previous day, Slava 1 was launched on 8th February 1977. Both VA capsules were successfully placed in a low Earth orbit with an average altitude of 210 km. Berezovoi reported no problems as he monitored the automatic operation of his spacecraft. Without the spacious FGB module, the VA capsule would have been claustrophobic for the nominal crew of three, but as the sole occupant Berezovy found it acceptable. He was able to remove his pressure suit, eat and even sleep briefly in the small cabin.


    After 16 orbits of the Earth, Berezovoi once again donned his Sokol pressure suit as the propulsion section of VA #102 fired to de-orbit the capsule. Berezovoi was brought back to Earth within the nominal landing zone after a total mission of just under 25 hours. The uncrewed VA #009 remained in orbit for a further two days before completing its own re-entry and landing, again with no issues.

    With the VA and Proton launcher having demonstrated their ability to support crewed missions, the next major milestone was an uncrewed test of the full TKS spacecraft, including both VA and FGB modules. This came just two months later in April 1977, with the launch of Slava 2, which saw the 20-tonne spacecraft complete a number of complex manoeuvres over a 14 day mission before the VA separated and returned to Earth. The FGB remained operating in orbit under ground control for a further three months before being commanded to a destructive re-entry over the Indian Ocean.

    On 17th August 1977, the Slava 3 mission launched from Baikonur Site 200. The mission once again consisted of a complete TKS spacecraft, but this time carried a full crew complement of three cosmonauts: Yuri Glazkov, Dimitri Yuyukov, and mission commander Yuri Artyukhin, veteran of the Soyuz 12/Almaz 1 mission. Despite the military nature of the programme, the three-week Slava 3 mission was extensively publicised by the Soviets. With US human spaceflights three years into a hiatus pending the launch of their Space Shuttle, the Soviets were eager to show off their latest achievement in cosmonautics, and the spacious interior of Slava was a clear contrast to recordings of cramped Apollo-era capsules. The test objectives of the Slava 3 mission were also successfully met, with the spacecraft performing well over its extended mission, and the crew returned safely to the motherland on 6th September.


    The success of Slava 3 was quickly followed up with the launch of Zarya 2, the second MKBS core. Aside from a change in the colour of its insulating blankets, the most visible changes from Zarya 1 were the “power tower” mast with additional Almaz-derived solar arrays, and the inclusion of large, deployable synthetic aperture radar antennas along the habitation compartment, supplementing the types of optical reconnaissance payloads flown on the Almaz missions. Less obviously, both of the station’s docking ports had been strengthened to support the heavier Slava vehicle, and the internal avionics were upgraded to make use of the new S-650 digital computer, which incorporated many advances developed by Nikolai Pilyugin’s Scientific Research Institute of Automatics and Instrument-Making (NII AP) to support the L3 and L3M lunar programmes. More menacingly, Zarya 2 carried not only a modification of the “Shield 1” self-defence cannon used on the Almaz stations, but a new anti-satellite missile system called “Shield 2”[2]. Four of these radar guided missiles were attached to the Zarya base block in individual canisters, and their 100km estimated range added a considerable offensive capability to the new station.


    Zarya 2 entered orbit on 12th December 1977, and was joined in space one week later by Slava 4. Cosmonauts Vladimir Kozelsky, Eduard Stepanov and Valeri Romanov docked with the station on their second day in orbit to begin a three month stay in orbit. Unlike the Slava 3 mission, and despite TASS trumpeting the docking as marking the foundation of the world’s first multi-module space station, the crew of Slava 4 received little publicity, and made only a few television broadcasts. Their focus was instead on commissioning Almaz’s military payloads and demonstrating the effectiveness of their radar payload. In this they were largely successful, with the Almaz radar demonstrating a marked improvement in quality over the US-A data, but the mission once again called into question the necessity of carrying a crew. Almost all of the advantages of Zarya were due to its greater size and power, not due to the presence of humans aboard. The crew did perform a number of valuable scientific experiments during their stay, but in terms of an operational military capability, it seemed that uncrewed systems had the advantage.

    Perhaps the most significant event of Zarya 2’s mission was the docking of Slava 5 on 5th March 1978. Despite another failure of the notoriously unreliable Igla rendezvous system, Slava 5 commander Valeri Makrushin was able to guide the 20 tonne spacecraft to a manual docking at Zarya’s aft port. This marked the first joining in orbit of three crewed space vehicles, and matched the Apollo-Soyuz record of six for the maximum number of people in a docked spacecraft. The two Slava crews remained in orbit together for five days before Kozelsky, Stepanov and Romanov entered the Slava 4 return capsule and separated from the FGB cargo block to return to Earth.


    In a test of the new vehicles’ capabilities, the Slava 4 FGB remained docked at the station for a further 2 weeks. Makrushin and his crewmates, Gennady Sarafanov and Leonid Kizim, transferred a number of ongoing experiments from the FGB to the Zarya base block, before filling the module with empty containers and other trash. On 19th April, as part of an experiment to maximise Zarya’s operational life, Slava 4’s propulsion system was fired to raise the station’s orbit. This successfully demonstrated the re-boost capability that would be vital in preserving the base block’s limited propellant supply. For future stations Glushko was planning modifications to both MKBS and TKS to allow in-space propellant transfers, but in the meantime Zarya 2 was dependent upon the reserves it had been launched with, plus the engines of visiting Slava spacecraft.

    The Slava 4 FGB undocked upon ground command on 25th April, but remained in orbit for another month before finally being commanded to destructive re-entry in late May. The crew of Slava 5 were relieved in June by Slava 6, and the chain of missions would continue until the return of Slava 8 in May 1979. After the departure of the crew, the Zarya 2/Slava 8 FGB complex remained in orbit, and it was in this period that the Shield 2 missiles were tested.

    On 8th September 1979, the Slava 8 FGB undocked and was moved to an orbit almost 50km lower than Zarya 2. On 15th September, as the two spacecraft approached the closest points of their respective orbits, one of the Shield-2 missiles was fired from Zarya. The missile crippled the FGB, and generated a large amount of debris that was quickly picked up by NORAD in the United States. The incident sparked little public discussion at the time, with most of the press taking the Soviet’s cover story of a technical failure of the Slava 8 module at face value, but it developed into a significant scandal in early 1980 when the FGB made an uncontrolled re-entry over Canada in January. Several pieces of the large spacecraft reached the ground, including propellant tanks containing highly toxic dinitrogen tetraoxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, which contaminated an area of forest close to Armstrong, Ontario[3].

    The Canadian government billed the Soviets CA$4 million for clean up operations under the 1972 Space Liability Convention, while the US condemned the use of weapons in space that had led to the incident. The Soviets continued to publicly deny that any weapons had been involved, but they eventually paid CA$2 million to Canada. Despite the cover story, and coming at a time of heightened tensions over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the American defence and intelligence communities took grim note of the development of this new weapon, and began pressing their own plans with greater urgency.

    The final crewed mission to Zarya 2 was that of Slava 9 in March 1980. With the station slated to be replaced by Zarya 3 in the coming year, the Slava 9 mission largely focussed on closing out long-running experiments in plant growth and metallurgie, but with tensions with the US still high it also conducted operational military surveillance missions, with a focus on optical observations of Afghanistan and radar observations of US fleet movements in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean. The Slava 9 mission ended with the VA capsule’s return in late June, with the FGB remaining with the station until the destructive re-entry of the whole complex over the Pacific in September 1980.

    Over more than two years in orbit, Zarya 2 had proved impressive but controversial. Its achievements in extending the duration of crewed missions, and in particular its demonstration of continuous crewing over multiple missions, had won admiration. However, this was largely overshadowed by concerns over its offensive capabilities, with parts of the Western media calling the station “Battlestar Zarya” and questioning whether the skies would be safe for American astronauts when the Shuttle commenced operations. As the Cold War was entering its chilliest and most dangerous phase on the ground, it seemed that the detente in space that had been opened by the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was now definitively over, as both superpowers debuted new vehicles and capabilities for the new decade.


    [1] Not to be confused with the 3-ship (now 2…) class of Project 1164 “Atlant” naval cruisers, which IOTL have the NATO reporting name “Slava” (taken from the name of the first ship of the class, which was launched in 1979). For this reason, I considered using a different name for TKS, which never got a proper name IOTL (though it was sometimes referred to as “Heavy Cosmos” in the West). However, the word “Slava” is almost ubiquitous in Soviet era propaganda posters, and fits the political mood of the time. Most importantly, it passed the “smell test” by being independently proposed by a Russian friend, so I decided to stick with it.

    [2] Shield 2 was a real weapon planned for the unflown OPS-4 IOTL.

    [3] This parallels the OTL Kosmos 954 incident, which has been butterflied away ITTL.
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    Interlude : Seven Minutes
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    Interlude : Seven Minutes​

    Ivan Smirnov watched his instruments show the descent stage entering the planet’s upper atmosphere. Grasping the heavy headphones to his ears, he stared at the oscilloscope screen in front of him, waiting. The hisses and pops of random radio noise were all he could hear, with correspondingly shallow peaks and troughs on the display. Less than a minute ago, the steady ‘beep-beep-beep’ of the Mars 9 probe had stuttered and vanished as the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere was heated to a radio opaque plasma around the entry vehicle. If all went well, the next signal from the probe would come from about 10km above the surface, as the plasma sheath dissipated and the parachutes deployed. But a lot of things had to go right before that could happen.

    One minute

    The old control centre at Yevpatoriya was hushed as everyone waited. Around the large table at the centre of the room, the VIPs sat and chain smoked, nervously awaiting the news from space. Georgy Babakin, the Chief Designer for NPO Lavochkin and mastermind of the Mars 4NM mission, sat next to Anatoli Alexandrov, the president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, staring at the television screen showing the last received status of the probe, looking nervous. As well he might. The USSR’s track record for Mars probes was not an impressive one: of thirteen attempted missions, none had been completely successful.

    Two minutes

    The probe should be approaching peak deceleration now. Telemetry indicated that the delicate petals of its aero-shield had deployed as planned before entry. If any of those moving parts had failed to lock into place it would spell doom for the mission. But the system had been tested on suborbital ballistic missions and on one re-entry from an elliptical Earth orbit. It worked, at least in Earth’s upper atmosphere. But that had been without an eight month soak in the vacuum of deep space, and those petals looked awfully delicate.

    Three minutes

    Ivan’s mind went back to the previous mission, Mars 8. He’d worked on that mission too, on the flight dynamics team, refining Mars capture procedures. Mars 8 had failed long before it had the chance to validate those procedures, the victim of faulty electronics shortly after departing the Earth, but Ivan had been able to use his old calculations as a starting point for Mars 9’s mission. So far, events had proved his calculations to be accurate, with the spacecraft hitting the middle of its entry window. That should be enough to avoid the probe burning up in the atmosphere, or skipping back off into space, but only time would tell.

    Four minutes

    A signal! Ivan’s oscilloscope traced a peak, then another, as the familiar “beep-beep” warbled uncertainly through his headphones. Cheers went up around the control room, but were swiftly silenced by Babakin’s waved arm. On Mars, this event was already twenty minutes in the past, but here in Crimea the assembled scientists and engineers still leaned in towards their monitors, as if trying to physically pull the data across interplanetary space. Now the first doppler analysis from the signal was coming through - and look! A spike! That was the parachute deployment and the aeroshell separating, exactly according to plan!

    Five minutes

    The next indicator to come on, according to the timeline in Ivan’s flight operations manual, should be for radar lock. Bandwidth on this low gain channel was severely restricted, meaning they would not be able to have a second-by-second read-out of the probe’s altitude, just a binary lock/no lock signal, triggered by a change in the frequency of beeps on the carrier signal. The radar was based on the unit developed for the old LK moon lander, and performed the same function, triggering the descent module’s retro-rockets for a final soft landing on the surface. Without a radar lock, the rockets would instead be fired by an automatic timer. If the mission planners were correct in guessing how high Mars 9 would be at a given moment, then that should be sufficient. But if they were wrong by more than a few percent…

    Six minutes

    Still no radar lock signal. What was wrong? Ivan’s mind raced through fault-tree analyses as his eyes remained locked on his screen. Had the radar unit failed? Possible, though there was a redundant unit for this mission critical component. Maybe the radio relay was down? But they were still getting acceleration data through on the adjacent channel. Maybe some atmospheric or surface effect on Mars was dissipating the radar signal, preventing a lock? That was possible. There was still so much they didn’t know about the Red Planet, with only the twin American Viking landers two years earlier providing any surface data. Well, that plus a few seconds of garbled transmission before Mars 3 had gone silent.

    Seven minutes

    There was a shout from another console as the tone of the carrier changed again: “Parachutes detached! Retro-rocket ignition!” Ivan glanced quickly across the telemetry feeds. There was still no indication of radar lock, but the propulsion system light was on and the doppler trace showed a jerk from the parachute release, then a steady deceleration from the rockets. Altitude… What was the altitude? Without the radar there was no way to be sure. Did the rockets have enough time to slow the probe to a soft landing? Or were they too high, and the rockets would keep firing until their fuel was expended, dropping their delicate cargo from dozens or hundreds of metres above the sands? What would happen - No, what had already happened - in the skies above that cold, red desert?

    Contact light!


    Sol 1

    Ten minutes after landing, the Mars 9 “Marsokhod” rover unfurled its high gain antenna and pointed it towards a nondescript patch of salmon-pink sky. Circuits closed within the metal body of the probe, and a radio signal was beamed towards its waiting masters on Earth with a simple message: “I am here”.

    Around the rover lay the dented carcass of the descent stage. The force of a harder than expected landing had damaged the bottom of the stage and punctured a propellant tank, which had shot away from the rest of the spacecraft, taking the low gain antenna with it. The ramps meant to grant the rover access to the surface were twisted and useless. Not that it would have mattered, as three of the rover’s wheels were themselves a crumpled mess. Still, its instruments were working, its cameras were active, and so its simple electronic brain was determined to carry out as much of its mission as possible. The first step in that mission was to let Earth know: “I am here”.

    On Earth, Ivan Smirnov watched his instruments show the descent stage entering the planet’s upper atmosphere. At that same moment (if such a thing can be said to exist in an Einsteinian universe), Mars 9 sat patiently on the surface of Mars, waiting for Ivan to hear its call.

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    Post 12: Testing Times
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    Post 12: Testing Times​

    “Houston is go for sep, have a great flight.”

    “OK, Enterprise is, ah, set. [Unintelligible]. And stand by for the bang, Gordo.”


    “Launch ready”

    “Phase one, sep. Phase two, clear.”

    - Transcript from Space Shuttle Enterprise Approach and Landing Test (ALT) 1, 12th August 1977.


    Despite the higher priority the Soviet leadership placed on the Baikal shuttle programme, Mishin, Semonov and others at TsKBEM still saw the L3M lunar landing mission as their most important activity. Baikal continued to drain resources throughout the late seventies, but L3M continued to move forward, albeit at a slower rate. Aside from engineering manpower, the main conflicts between the two programmes would be over the ground support equipment, and in particular the extensive modifications needed at Site 110 to supply the new hydrolox third stage for Groza, the Block-V-III. Within months of formal approval of the Baikal/Groza design in November 1977, Pad 38 was once again blocked for N-1 launches as Barmin’s bureau began the necessary modifications. Coming little more than a year after the completion of the Pad 37 updates for Blok-Sr, this meant that Baikonur would again lack a dual-launch capability with the Groza rocket until well into 1979 at the earliest. As the L3M architecture depended upon this dual launch capability, this put a serious constraint on the project planning.

    This is not to say that no work had been done. Even before the approval of the Baikal programme, good progress had been made on testing the N1F-Blok Sr version of the Groza intended to carry L3M, with the first flight of the new upper stage coming in October 1975 on N1-12L. Launching from Pad 38, vehicle 12L saw the Blok-Sr replace the old Blok-G and Blok-D stages flown on previous missions. The payload was another Soyuz 7K-LOK, in this case vehicle No.4, designated Zond 11. A small crew of turtles, insects, and plants were carried within the descent module, along with an extensive photographic payload and cosmic ray detectors in the habitation module.

    Consideration was given to flying one of the remaining L3 LK spacecraft to the lunar surface in a repeat of the Zond 10/Luna 23 mission, perhaps even adding a robotic arm to be deployed from the LK to scoop up some samples, and so turn the Luna 22 cover story of an automated sample return mission into a reality. However, this option was finally dismissed, as the modifications needed for both taking the samples and then transferring them to the LOK in lunar orbit proved too challenging for the time and resources available. Another uncrewed landing with the basic LK would add little scientific or engineering knowledge, while adding a risk of failure, and in any case the mission’s main objective was to test the Blok-Sr, not explore the Moon.

    The N1-12L was a success, with only a single NK-33 failing on the Blok-A first stage during ascent. This was not uncommon on Groza launches, and no longer posed an existential threat to the vehicle, with the opposing engine being shut down and the flight control system continuing with a slightly longer burn time. However, it was studied with more care on this occasion as the rocket for the first time was making use of a refined version of kerosene. Called “sintin”, this gave a small but crucial performance boost to the first three stages, that together with Blok-Sr would raise Groza’s payload to LEO from 95 to 105 tonnes. In the post-launch analysis, the State Commission concluded that the failure of the Blok-A engine was unrelated to the use of sintin, and this new fuel was cleared for use on future flights.

    With the first three stages successful in delivering their payload into the required parking orbit, the focus moved to the Blok-Sr. The new high energy stage performed flawlessly, demonstrating its ability to start after several days in Earth orbit to make a Trans-Lunar Injection burn, then braking Zond 11 into a low lunar orbit three days later. On an L3M mission, the Blok-Sr’s payload would be the large GB-1, or Blok-D2, space tug, so the relatively lightweight LOK posed little challenge for the twin 11D56 engines. The LOK separated from Blok-Sr and went on to spend two days photographing the lunar surface, before discarding the habitation module and firing its own engines to return to Earth, successfully delivering its crew of turtles and fruit flies back to the USSR. This marked the first successful return of a 7K spacecraft from lunar distances since Zond 8 in 1970.

    The 12L mission was repeated in 1976 with N1-13L, which flew substantially the same profile. Once again, a LOK spacecraft, Zond 12, was placed into lunar orbit and successfully returned, and the Blok-Sr proved its reliability. Unfortunately, the next mission in the L3M test programme was not so lucky, as the first test article of the GB-1 tug on N1-14L failed to reach orbit when the rocket exploded at Blok-B ignition. This time it was one of the eight NK-43 engines of the Blok-B that failed, damaging the Blok-A interstage truss such that the Blok-B was unable to separate cleanly. The depleted Blok-A pulled the rest of the stack off course, resulting in a destructive spin.

    Mishin and Kuznetsov now faced a difficult choice. Stung by a repeat of the sort of high-profile engine failure that had almost destroyed his career in the early 1970s, Kuznetsov recommended delaying further launches until the issue was fully understood. Many in the 14L State Commission agreed with this, but found that their time was limited. The 14L failure had come in February 1977, just five months before the planned launch of 15L and its Mars 4NM payload to the Red Planet. Missing that launch window would mean a delay of two years for Lavochkin’s “Marsokhod” rover, during which time the American’s could upstage the Soviets with a follow-up to their dramatic Viking landers. Kuznetsov and Mishin were therefore given just three months to complete their investigations and make a recommendation to the N1-15L State Commission as to whether the launch should proceed. Of course, Mishin reported in the affirmative, and the Mars 9 probe was launched in July without incident.

    The 14L mission was re-flown in September 1977 on N1-16L, and succeeded in demonstrating the GB-1 upper stage in a slimmed down L3M mission profile. Two weeks after being placed in lunar orbit by the Blok-Sr upper stage, the GB-1 tug’s 11D71 kerolox engines were fired in a simulated lunar descent manoeuvre. As planned, the stage crashed into the surface of the Moon, having demonstrated its role in carrying a GB-2 lander to a point over its landing zone. Officially, the Soviets claimed this was an impactor probe intended to support studies of the composition of the Moon, but Western observers were almost universal in dismissing this flimsy cover story and correctly deducing GB-1’s true purpose as part of a crewed landing system. (The fact that the GB-1 had been called “Zond 13” by the Soviets led some of a superstitious inclination to believe that the impact on the surface may have been unintentional, leading to a brief revival of the old “Phantom Moonwalker” myth.)


    The launch of Zarya 2 in December 1977 rounded off Groza’s busiest year to date, with four launches of the giant rocket. As Pad 37 was stood down for Baikal related upgrades, the next two years would see a more relaxed cadence, with just one Groza launch per year, both of which were in support of L3M.

    In June 1978, N1-18L carried the first prototype of Semenov’s GB-2 LEK lander on an uncrewed test flight. GB-2 Vehicle No.1 lacked many of the subsystems that would be needed on a real mission - in particular life support - but was able to validate the operation of Glushko’s Propulsion Unit in lunar orbit. The “Zond 14” spacecraft was unable to land without its GB-1 tug, but did perform a number of basic manoeuvres in lunar orbit before making a Trans-Earth Injection burn to send the spacecraft home. The complicated separation of the Return Capsule from the Cocooned Habitation Module was accomplished without problem, and the Return Capsule made a successful (if hard) landing in the Kazakh steppe with its crew of dazed turtles and fruit flies.

    Testing of the GB-1 continued in 1979 with the launch of “Zond 15” on Groza N1-19L. The mission profile was initially similar to that of Zond 13, but this time the tug was not crashed into the Moon, but rather performed a number of additional manoeuvres in space before being left in a high lunar orbit. At the time there was speculation that there had been some failure that prevented the completion of the mission profile, as by now Western analysts had a pretty clear idea of the likely L3M mission profile, including the role of the GB-1 as a crasher stage. Later events would show this assumption to be incorrect.

    1980 opened with the launch in February of the second GB-2 LEK vehicle, inevitably labelled as “Zond 16”, on N1-20L. This was a repeat of the Zond 14 mission of two years previously, but with a much more representative vehicle. Zond 16 was effectively a fully functional LEK lander, containing all the systems needed to support the planned lunar expedition. Once delivered to lunar orbit by the Blok-Sr, Zond 16 separated and immediately began a series of manoeuvres to bring it to a rendezvous with the Zond 15 GB-1 stage. Using a modification of the Kontakt system originally developed for L3, over the course of a day Zond 16 brought itself to within a hundred metres of Zond 15. An actual landing attempt was not possible, as Zond 15’s liquid oxygen supplies had been depleted over the previous year, but by using the GB-1 stage as a target the Soviets were able to test out one of the riskiest aspects of their chosen mission profile. An automatic docking should have been possible, but Mishin’s engineers decided the risk of damaging the two spacecraft was not worth the marginal benefit of demonstrating a docking. They also had other plans for the GB-1 stage that docking with the single-use Kontakt probe-and-target system would preclude. A day after the rendezvous, Zond 16 backed away from the GB-1 and performed an orbit-raising burn equivalent in duration to that needed for a final landing. It spent two more weeks in lunar orbit before performing Trans Earth Injection and making a safe return to Earth.

    October 1980 saw the most dramatic L3M mission to date, and marked the point at which the Soviets finally admitted in public that they had a crewed lunar programme in development. On 21st October three cosmonauts - Valeri Bykovsky, Oleg Makarov and Gennadi Strekalov - boarded GB-2 LEK vehicle no.3 and lifted off from Site 110 Pad 37 aboard Groza vehicle 21L for a test of their spacecraft in Earth orbit. This marked the first crewed launch of the Groza, as well as the first piloted L3M mission, and so a “Zond” or “Kosmos” designation was out of the question. The mission was instead announced as “Zvezda 1”.

    Nerves were high for this first crewed launch, but although the Groza rocket itself had a less than perfect record, the N-1’s SAS escape system had proven itself on each of the 3L, 5L and 6L failures (the 14L mission hadn’t carried an SAS), pulling its uncrewed L1 capsule to safety every time. The escape tower was connected directly to the LEK Return Capsule containing the three cosmonauts, but in the event it was not needed, as the tower was jettisoned shortly after Blok-B staging as normal. N1-21L went on to deliver the Blok-Sr/GB-2 stack into a low parking orbit with no significant anomalies. The Zvezda 1 crew were able to unstrap from their couches and opened the interior hatch between the Return Capsule and the Cocooned Habitation Capsule, removing the Sokol pressure suits they had worn for launch and changing into more comfortable coveralls.

    After a day becoming accustomed to their new accommodations, the Blok-Sr’s 11D56 engines were fired to put the spacecraft into an elliptical orbit with an apogee of 900km, just inside of the inner Van Allen belts. They remained in this orbit for almost three days before again using the Blok-Sr stage to lower them to a 270km circular orbit, thus simulating a lunar transfer and braking manoeuvre. The LEK then separated from the Blok-Sr and several days in free flight, making some minor orbit changes with the GB-2’s own engines. This phase of the mission included a spacewalk by mission commander Valeri Bykovsky, who spent almost two hours outside in his Krechet moonsuit. Makarov also donned a Krechet, but remained inside the depressurised Habitation Module as a back-up, while Strekalov sheltered in the Return Capsule in his Sokol suit. Both Bykovsky and Makarov reported difficulties in moving around the interior of the BO in the bulky moonsuits, no significant issues were found, and another milestone to a Soviet lunar landing was successfully passed.


    Zvezda 1 returned to Earth after a total mission time of 9 days, 5 hours and 17 minutes. The mission had been an almost complete success, proving that the new spacecraft could support three crew members for the minimum required mission duration. There was some pressure from the leadership to move directly to a lunar landing attempt, but aside from a native engineering caution, this was ruled out in the near term by the ongoing unavailability of Pad 38 and the necessary dual launch capability. The next mission was therefore an extension - though still a bold one - of the previous flight, and finally achieving the dream that Semenov had seen denied with the L1/Zond programme: Zvezda 2 would send a LEK and its crew all the way to lunar orbit.









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    Interlude : Zvezda 2
  • Interlude : Zvezda 2​

    - 29th April 1981, near-Moon space.

    No other humans have seen this for over eight years.

    That was the thought that came to Yevgenii Vassil’evich Khrunov’s mind as he looked out of the LEK commander’s window to the lunar landscape rolling slowly past a thousand kilometres below. To his left, LEK pilot Valeri Ryumin was pressed to his own window. Behind them, Aleksandr Serebrov was straining to see over Valeri’s shoulder, squeezed into the tight space between his comrades and the encapsulated Return Capsule. From Earth’s perspective, the Moon was in its Waning Gibbous phase, so the farside features below were still bathed in bright sunlight. Hertzspung Crater had just slid past the window. Soon they would be passing the crater of Korolev. Earth had dipped below the lunar horizon five minutes earlier, so they were cut off from mission control in Moscow. Alone, just the three of them, now the furthest from home of any human beings in history.

    No, not quite alone.

    Though he couldn’t yet see it, the Kontakt instrumentation showed a series of regular peaks from the rendezvous beacon of the “Zond 15” GB-1 rocket stage, speeding ahead of them in lunar orbit. Launched two years previously, the unpiloted stage had been left in orbit as a target vehicle to practice docking manoeuvres. Its propellant had long since been exhausted, and its orbit had degraded over the two years it had been circling the Moon, its path distorted by irregularities in the lunar gravitation field. But a cluster of solar cells had kept its small battery charged, and the Kontakt beacon was still operating, a lighthouse for those seeking to find their way to these remote lunar shores. Khrunov re-checked the range on his instruments, then allowed his eyes to be drawn back to the landscape below.

    I had started to think I would never see this…

    Khrunov had been selected as a cosmonaut in March 1960, part of the same group as Yuri Gagarin himself. His only spaceflight to date had been as part of the Soyuz 5 crew that had docked with Soyuz 4 in early 1969. Together with Aleksei Yeliseyev, Khrunov had space walked across to the Soyuz 4, participating in the first in-space transfer of crew members between spacecraft launched on different rockets. The achievement had been incredible… and was quickly overshadowed by the exploits of the American Apollo astronauts. Since then, Khrunov had trained as part of the first group of Soviet lunar cosmonauts, first under the L3 programme, then for L3M. Now 47 years old, he had started to wonder if his chance had come too late, with younger pilots like Sasha Serebrov taking his place. But it seemed his old Soyuz 4/5 comrade and head of the cosmonaut corps, Vladimir Shatalov, still valued the experience of the early pioneers. So here he was, in orbit of the Moon - the Moon! - testing the systems that one day soon would see a Soviet cosmonaut plant the hammer-and-sickle in that dusty landscape.

    And a year or two after that first landing, it could be my turn to set foot on the surface.

    They were coming up on the terminator now, the craters below filled with inky blackness, then nothing but darkness. The ship itself was still in sunlight, and would remain so until well after Earth re-appeared from behind the Moon in half an hour. The high target orbit that had reduced the load on their Blok-Sr breaking stage also kept them illuminated most of the time, but with the surface below now blotted out, it was time to get back to work.

    “Five minutes to injection burn - now”, Khrunov said. “Confirm readiness for the burn.”

    “The rocket block indicator is good. Propulsion system pressure is stable,” Ryumin reported. “Attitude is within guidelines.”

    “Confirmed,” Khrunov responded as he checked his own readouts. The ship’s digital computer appeared to be running correctly, ready to automatically make the burn slowing them from a lunar flyby trajectory into the high orbit from which they would rendezvous with the GB-1. Despite all the tests and assurances of the designers, however, Khrunov was still glad to have the experienced hand of Valeri Ryumin ready to take over should the automatic systems fail.

    “One minute,” Khrunov announced, as the digital countdown swept into the final sixty seconds. Behind him, he could sense Seberov moving to better brace himself for the manoeuvre. The engine’s thrust would never be high enough to make standing a problem, and visibility for landing would be hampered by a seated position, so, like the Apollo astronauts in their lunar module, the crew of Zvezda would remain upright for the burn.

    And there it is!

    Right on programme, the twin RD-56M engines of the Blok-Sr lit, pressing the ship’s deck up against the feet of the three cosmonauts. Khrunov watched his gauges carefully as the hydrolox engines shook the spacecraft. They had no indication of the amount of propellant left in the rocket stage, other than the length of the burn. The hydrogen fuel had been kept as cold as possible in the three days since it had been loaded into the Blok-Sr’s insulated tanks at Baikonur, but some loss to boil-off was unavoidable. The experts on the ground had assured them that the margins were sufficient, that there had been no unexpected pressure changes showing a faster rate of loss, but there was no way to be certain. If those tanks ran dry early, the crew would be left in an elliptical lunar orbit, without enough reserves in the Zvezda’s own tanks to make the rendezvous with GB-1, and they would be forced to return to Earth with their mission incomplete.

    But no! The timer has already passed the necessary duration for lunar orbit injection!

    The rattling continued past the invisible milestone, lowering the spacecraft’s perilune to more closely match that of the target vehicle. Then, suddenly, silence. The three men from Earth drifted weightlessly up against their restraints and grinned at one another.

    We are in orbit of the Moon!

    Post 13: Another Small Step
  • 2A9AKbfXlFR7247sVMWKu2X_8NskQG0MkQYMuvrHIZRoov5fL3cI0TUQ-0-9rz3ki72r7Jt7GZ91sqbD6YDMjiPg5CEANOSgmw0fg2NLvhA8NTRpd6mNuhmtvDBfiQ820z8oh849

    Post 13: Another Small Step​

    "What struck me most was the silence. It was a great silence, unlike any I have encountered on Earth, so vast and deep that I began to hear my own body: my heart beating, my blood vessels pulsing, even the rustle of my muscles moving over each other seemed audible. There were more stars in the sky than I had expected. The sky was deep black, yet at the same time bright with sunlight."

    Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, Voskhod 2


    The return of the Zvezda 2 cosmonauts to Earth on 4th May 1981 was justly celebrated by the Soviets as a great achievement. At a time when relations between East and West were at their lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the USSR facing global condemnation over their invasion of Afghanistan, and following high profile boycotts of the Moscow Olympics the previous year, the flight of Khrunov, Ryumin and Serebrov around the Moon was a rare feel-good story, and the Soviet propaganda machine milked it for all it was worth. In scenes not witnessed since the early days of the Space Race, the three cosmonauts were made Heroes of the Soviet Union in a marquee event in Red Square, then immediately dispatched on a tour of Warsaw Pact capitals and Western Europe. However, if all went to plan, these celebrations would pale compared to those following the next mission in the sequence. With Baikal refit work finally completed at Baikonur’s Pad 38, the road was open to complete the mission that Korolev had set forth for N-1 eighteen years earlier: a piloted landing on the Moon.

    Early July of 1981 produced a sight not seen at Baikonur for almost a decade: two N-1 Groza rockets standing together at the Rasket launch complex. To the East was Pad 38, holding N1-23L and the unpiloted GB-1 Zvezda 3 crasher stage. On the western side, distinguishable by its SAS launch abort system, N1-24L stood at Pad 37 with the Zvezda 4 GB-2 Lunar Exploratory Complex vehicle. Assembled in parallel in the MIK, the two rockets had been pulled out to the pads within three weeks of one another, and would now undergo a further month of on-pad testing and preparations. The mission plan called for Zvezda 3 to launch on August 1st, to be followed by the crew of Zvezda 4 at the next launch window 14 days later.


    The crew of Zvezda 4 were the best and most experienced of the Soviet cosmonaut corps, each having trained for a decade or more for such a mission. In the Flight Engineer role was 51 year old Anatoli Fyodorovich Voronov, veteran of the Soyuz 16/Zarya 1 mission, and a member of the TsKP-2 selection group of 1963. Piloting the LEK was Ukrainian cosmonaut Pavel Popovich. Originally selected alongside Yuri Gagarin in the TsPK-1 group of 1960, the 50 year old Popovich had flown on Vostok 4 and had commanded the challenging Soyuz 12 mission to Almaz 1, before re-joining the group of lunar cosmonauts training for L3M. Commanding the mission was the legendary Aleksei Arkhipovich Leonov. Leonov was famous across the globe as the first man to walk in space on Voskhod 2, as well as the commander of the Soviet half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The 51 year old Leonov had also flown on the Soyuz 9/10 joint flight, and for more than a decade had been the front runner to command the first Soviet mission to land upon the Moon. Like the other members of his crew, Leonov expected Zvezda 4 to be the final, crowning achievement of his spaceflight career, and all three were determined to ensure its successful completion.

    The three cosmonauts, plus their back-ups, were present at Baikonur on 1st August for the launch of Zvezda 3. Unfortunately, a problem with the hydrogen fuelling system on Pad 38’s newly refurbished rotating service tower meant that the attempt had to be scrubbed, and the window was missed. Engineers stood down the vehicle and took the opportunity to make some additional checks while they waited two-weeks for the launch window to open again. The additional care apparently paid off as the early morning of Saturday 15th August 1981 saw a flawless liftoff for Groza vehicle N1-23L. Its early teething problems now a distant memory, the giant rocket worked precisely to program, putting the GB-1 spacecraft and its Blok-Sr upper stage into a parking orbit at 220 km altitude and 51.8 degrees inclination.

    The action now moved to the Mission Control Centre at Kaliningrad, outside Moscow, as the upper stage and its payload were checked out by ground controllers. With the Soviet ground control complex augmented by the twin Space Control Monitoring ships “Gagarin” and “Korolev”, TsKBEM engineers had almost complete coverage of Zvezda 3’s orbit, and were soon able to confirm that the spacecraft were functioning correctly. Three hours after launch, they issued the command for Blok-Sr to fire its engines and put the booster and its GB-1 payload on a trans-lunar trajectory.

    On 17th August, as Zvezda 3 cruised towards the Moon, space fans were treated to a second significant spaceflight milestone, as the first American shuttle Columbia completed a Flight Readiness Firing test at Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A[1]. Coming two months after the futuristic new spacecraft had been rolled out to the pad, the successful FRF gave NASA managers confidence in scheduling the first launch for the end of September. If everything went to plan, this would come just over a week after the return of Leonov, Popovich and Voronov to Earth.

    Zvezda 3 entered high lunar orbit on 18th August. Its job done, the Blok-Sr stage was discarded, while the controllers at Kaliningrad confirmed that the GB-1 stage was stable and functioning correctly. In parallel, final preparations were underway at Baikonur to ensure Groza N1-24L and the Zvezda 4 LEK were ready for their historic flight. Ten days after Zvezda 3 entered lunar orbit, on the evening of 28th August, the State Commission confirmed Zvezda 4’s readiness for launch. The mission was on.

    As the sun rose at 07:03 local time on 29th August 1981, three cosmonauts stepped off a bus at Baikonur’s Pad 37 and formed a line in front of the assembled military and Party dignitaries. Saluting in his Sokol pressure suit, the recently promoted Lieutenant General Leonov reported to Defence Minister Dimitri Ustinov - the same “Uncle Mitya” who had been instrumental in establishing the Soviet rocket programme - that the crew of Zvezda 4 were ready to undertake their mission. In front of the recording cameras of Soviet Central Television, Marshal Ustinov returned the salute and gave official authorisation for the crew to proceed. With a crowd of Baikonur workers, family members, and government officials cheering them on, the crew and their support team climbed the steps at the foot of the rotating service tower and entered the lift that carried them to Platform 13. Stepping onto the metal walkway connecting the platform to the LEK payload shroud, the three paused briefly to wave to the cameras, then entered the hatch to the spacecraft within.

    With the crew now strapped into their couches in the GB-2 Return Capsule and the launch pad cleared of spectators, the final preparations for launch began. With the SAS escape system armed and ready in case of disaster, the pipes of the rotating service tower began loading the first three stages of the rocket with super-chilled kerosene and oxygen. By 10:30 the cavernous tanks had been filled to capacity, and it was time to fill the Blok-Sr’s tanks with their hydrolox payload, while the lower stages were kept topped up in order to squeeze out every last m/s of performance. The LEK’s own hypergolic propellants had been loaded at the MIK before roll-out, so the completion of Blok-Sr fuelling at 11:20 marked the completion of the major pre-launch milestones.

    At 12:17, the NK-33 engines of N1-24L’s Blok-A first stage roared into life, lifting the giant rocket from the pad. Although the launch was not shown live, multiple television and movie cameras captured the moment for rebroadcast on evening news bulletins around the world. They showed a perfect liftoff, with all thirty engines functioning to program as the launcher arced through the thin, high cloud deck and headed for the horizon.

    Outside Moscow, the TsUP Control Centre followed the rocket’s progress via the network of NIP tracking stations, including live audio and video of the crew inside the VA. All staging events occurred as planned, and the cosmonauts reported no problems as the rattling of the engines subsided and the LEK and Blok-Sr upper stage glided into their parking orbit. Leonov, Popovich and Voronov now removed their helmets and gloves, but remained strapped into their launch couches as mission controllers checked their orbital parameters. After a break in contact with the crew over the Eastern Pacific, communications were re-established via “Kosmonaut Yuri Gagarin” in the Atlantic Ocean. By the time the Zvezda 4 was passing over the Mediterranean, the flight dynamics team at Kaliningrad were able to confirm their orbital elements and began uplinking the final parameters for the Blok-Sr’s Earth departure burn, to be initiated on the next orbit.

    After a minor issue requiring a manual re-set of one of the LEK’s triple-redundant digital computers, the departure burn was performed successfully, and the crew of Zvezda 4 were finally able to unstrap themselves and remove their Sokol pressure suits. After stowing the suits in the VA, Voronov cracked open the interior hatch to the Cocooned Habitation Blok (OB), and all three cosmonauts entered the main compartment of the ship. The crew ran through some initial start-up procedures, then recorded a brief “Cosmovision” television programme for worldwide release. As Mission Commander, Leonov praised the efforts of the many engineers, technicians and support personnel who had worked on their craft. He expressed his excitement at finally being on his way to the Moon, and a hope that their mission would inspire the people of the world to work together in future endeavours.

    The three-day voyage to the moon passed largely uneventfully. The crew continued to make daily television recordings, including one aimed at children in which Voronov illustrated the effects of zero gravity with a small stuffed toy version of Cheburashka, the large-eared bear from the popular “Gena the Crocodile” films. Away from the cameras, the crew devoted most of their time to check-outs and preventative maintenance of their ship and equipment. Apart from some basic astronomical observations, there were very few scientific experiments to run during the cruise, with the bulk of Zvezda’s scientific payload devoted to lunar surface operations.

    Lunar orbit insertion occurred on 1st September, after which the Blok-Sr stage was discarded and Zvezda 4 started hunting down the Zvezda 3 GB-1 stage, following the call of its Kontakt beacon. Phasing manoeuvres consumed the rest of the day, until on the morning of 2nd September the two spacecraft were less than a kilometre apart. Under the constant gaze of Leonov and Popovich, the LEK rendezvous computer guided the ship slowly towards the Kontakt plate atop the kerolox booster stage. For the final approach, the cosmonauts had to rely on CCTV images, as the GB-1 was hidden from direct view by the bulk of the LEK’s descent stage. Fortunately, Kontakt proved more reliable than the old Igla system, and guided Zvezda 4’s probe to penetrate dead-centre of the GB-1 target plate, locking the two vehicles together.

    The next day was spent on further check-outs, both in space and on Earth, of the joined ship and its ground support systems. Then, when the combined GB-1/2 spacecraft was in the proper position, the D2 stage’s engine lit and started the crew on their descent towards the Mare Serenitatis.


    The hatch cracked open, and brilliant, unfiltered sunlight poured into the capsule. Leonov quickly pulled down the gold visor of his Krechet moon suit and peered out at the barren surroundings of their landing site. Magnificent desolation. That was how Buzz Aldrin had described the lunar landscape. Finally, Leonov was witnessing with his own eyes the awesome truth in that description. The sun was low on the horizon at this early hour, just a dozen or so hours after the dawning of a day that would last for two weeks. The long, ink-black shadows of rocks and craters contrasted with the grey dust of this ancient lava plain bright in the morning light, while above him the sky was a pure black deeper than he had ever experienced.

    Magnificent desolation.

    Pulling the hatch fully open, Leonov turned to back his way out of the Zvezda’s Cocooned Habitation Module and onto the small platform and descent ladder. Just a metre or so from him, inside the ship, Pavel Popovich stood in his own Krechet suit, squeezed against the side of the Return Capsule, holding a camera. Pressed against a window in the Return Capsule, Leonov could see the face of the third member of their crew, Anatoli Voronov. Mission rules were that Voronov had to be ready to return to Earth at a moment’s notice should anything go wrong, but he wasn’t about to miss seeing this historic event for himself.

    With Popovich taking pictures, Leonov backed out onto the platform, and into the view of the small external TV camera. Assuming no “bobkins” were screwing up the feed, Leonov knew he could now be seen by billions of people. Even on his famous first walk in space, Leonov had never been exposed to such scrutiny during a mission. And a good thing too, Leonov thought. How many heart attacks might I have caused if people had been watching live as I tried to re-enter Voskhod? There could be no such mistakes this time.

    Grasping metal handrails, Leonov moved one boot off the platform and stepped onto the first rung of the ladder. The world is watching. What is it that they see, I wonder? Last year, they were watching our wonderful Olympics in Moscow. But many could only see that America was absent. They saw our war in Afghanistan. Is that what they are seeing now? Do they see a glorious achievement, for mankind and for the socialist homeland? Or do they see an exhausted runner-up, chasing the moon to win propaganda trinkets for a decrepit leadership?

    No. Leonov had been a propaganda tool for most of his career, ever since the success of Voskhod 2 had thrust him into the limelight. But he knew he was more than that. Space travel was more than that. When he’d shaken Tom Stafford’s hand, all those years ago, it had meant something to the world. Though their nations had differences, they had worked together back then to do something special, something that Leonov had been proud to be a part of. Relations with the Americans had got a lot worse since then - perhaps as bad as any time since Cuba - but Leonov had to believe that they could get past these differences. That there would again come a time when Soviets and Americans could work together as friends, as brothers.

    Leonov stepped off the ladder onto the surface of the Moon.

    “My footprints join those of Neil Armstrong, and the other brave explorers of Earth. Like them, for the people of the Soviet Union and all the world, we come in peace for all mankind.”







    [1] IOTL this milestone was passed on 20th February 1981. STS-1 is running a few months late ITTL due to the impact of modifications to the programme relating to Shuttle-C.